Fridays with Fuhrmann: ECE in the middle

FWF_image_20161021Those that have been following this column or the activities in the ECE Department know that I am really keen on beefing up our educational and research programs in robotics, control, autonomy, and mobility. I see this as a very important space for Michigan Tech, especially considering the university’s role, spelled out in our founding legislation, to support industry in the State of Michigan. As it turns out, there is already quite a bit going on; I just think we need to get it unified and a little better organized, and publicized as well.

I want to share an amusing anecdote with you, one that I think speaks to the important role that EE and ECE departments play in cyber-physical systems and everything that goes with them, like autonomous vehicles. I was wandering about the Internet a few days ago, looking for interesting tidbits related to robotics and control, and for some reason I decided to Google the phrase “computer control of mechanical systems.” The first search result turned out to be a course description for a senior-level course offered at the University of Illinois, with that exact title: ME 461, Computer Control of Mechanical Systems. I thought – interesting, let’s see what that is all about.

Here is the list of topics in said course, according to the web page:

• DC circuits.
• Analog and digital electronics.
• Sensors, transducers, and actuators.
• Data conversion and transmission.
• Microcontroller architecture.
• Microcontroller programming and interfacing.
• Response and control of electro-mechanical systems.
• Introduction to sampled time control theory.

Look at this carefully. I laughed out loud, literally, when I saw this outline. A course called “Computer Control of Mechanical Systems” is nothing more, or perhaps nothing less, than a survey course in electrical engineering!

What does this mean? For me, it says that the connection between computer algorithms and mechanical systems is in the domain of electrical engineering. We are the bridge that brings computational intelligence to rotating machinery. If CS is the brains and ME is the brawn, then ECE is the central nervous system.

ECE is front and center in the technological revolution of autonomy and mobility – well, perhaps “center” but maybe not so much “front.” A lot of what we do is in the background, perhaps because many of our efforts have been so successful that the results have been commoditized. This seems to be particularly true for the FIRST Robotics programs, a highly successful nationwide high-school competition intended to get students fired up about STEM fields. FIRST has been great for computer science and mechanical engineering, no doubt, but the EE glue that holds everything together doesn’t get quite the same visibility.

Robotics is really an amalgamation of CS, EE, and ME, and all three play different but critical roles. As was recently pointed out to me by one of our industry partners, the magic really happens when you get this trio to play nicely together. I will continue to work for that at Michigan Tech. Of course, in my role as ECE chair I will continue to advocate for electrical and computer engineering as a central player in this rapidly emerging field, and to be recognized as such.

[I should add that none of the above is meant to give a hard time to the University of Illiois, a fantastic institution with one of the best engineering schools in the country.]

Next week’s column will probably be written in a hotel room in Detroit, as I take this message on the road. Until then, have a great week everyone!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Lucia Gauchia Quoted on Graphene Batteries

Lucia Gauchia
Lucia Gauchia

Lucia Gauchia (ECE, ME-EM) discusses graphene batteries in a Business Insider post about Henrik Fisker’s new electric car model. A number of other business, tech and science news media picked up the story including Yahoo! News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Latest Nigerian News.

Henrik Fisker is using a revolutionary new battery to power his Tesla killer

We took a closer look at the battery technology Fisker is promising to use, which he refers to as “the major leap, the next big step.”

Rather than working with conventional lithium-ion batteries, Fisker is turning to graphene supercapacitors.

Graphene is both the thinnest and strongest material discovered so far.

“Graphene shows a higher electron mobility, meaning that electrons can move faster through it. This will, e.g. charge a battery much faster,” Lucia Gauchia, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and energy storage systems at Michigan Technological University, told Business Insider. “Graphene is also lighter and it can present a higher active surface, so that more charge can be stored.”

Read more at the Business Insider, by Danielle Muoio.

Shiyan Hu to Deliver CPSCom 2016 Keynote

Shiyan Hu
Shiyan Hu

Shiyan Hu (ECE) is delivering a keynote talk at the Ninth IEEE International Conference on Cyber, Physical and Social Computing (CPSCom 2016). CPSCom, sponsored by IEEE Computer Society, is a major CPS technical conference in IEEE and is a premier forum to bring together researchers to present the state-of-the-art research results and exchange ideas in the area of CPS. In the ninth year of the successful CPSCom conference series, the organizing committee invited three world-leading CPS experts to deliver the keynote speeches. The conference takes place December 15-18, 2016, in Chengdu, China.

Hu will deliver the talk of “Smart Energy Cyber-Physical System Security: Threat Analysis and Defense Technologies.” In addition to directing the Center for Cyber-Physical Systems on campus, he is an ACM Distinguished Speaker, an IEEE Computer Society Distinguished Visitor, an invited participant for U.S. National Academy of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering Symposium, and a recipient of National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award. He is a Fellow of IET and the Editor-In-Chief of IET Cyber-Physical Systems: Theory & Applications. More information about his keynote speech can be found online.

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Another beautiful thing about being here

FWF_image_20161014Last night I saw the northern lights for the first time. Having lived in the Upper Peninsula for over eight years now, one would think that I would have had many opportunities, but no such luck until now. My wife and I got the news that there was a high probability of activity, so we drove up to Eagle River to have dinner at a nice restaurant on the shore of Lake Superior, facing northwest. After dinner, when it was dark, we went out to have a look and there they were big as life. It was a clear night, with a nearly full and very bright moon that unfortunately washed the contrast out quite a bit. Still, it was a thrill to see something I had always heard about but had never witnessed first-hand.

There is not much point to that story, other than it reminds me (yet again) of the things that are unusual and special about Michigan Tech and this part of the country.

Right now we are at the halfway point in the Fall 2016 semester – the end of Week 7. It seems that things have quieted down a bit, although a lot of people are excited about the home opener for the hockey team tonight at the MacInnes Ice Arena. For me, the first half of the fall semester is always very hectic, with advisory boards and the Career Fair and most recently all the performance evaluations leading up to mid-year raise recommendations for the faculty and staff. This week, I have had a chance to slow down and enjoy the change of seasons.

Fall is always a beautiful time of year in the Keweenaw. Because of all the warm weather we have had in September, fall is very late this year, I would say maybe as much as two weeks. There is a lot of color in the trees but they have not peaked yet; we need a good freeze to really get the colors to pop, and that hasn’t happened yet. The weather is great but the colors may be a bit on the bland side this year.

There’s an old joke around here that there are two seasons in the U.P. – “winter’s here” and “winter’s coming.” Once the leaves are off the trees in a couple of weeks, it really will be “winter’s coming,” a sort of nondescript time when things are gray but the snow hasn’t showed up yet. I find it a good time to take stock, clear off the to-do list (to the extent that is possible), and to start making preparations for the inevitable snow. Some people say we could get as much as 300 inches this year. I don’t doubt that that is possible, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

The reader can tell that, even though I am in the office, my mind is not in the office. That is one disadvantage of having a big picture window with a view of the fall colors! Next week I will close the blinds and get back to writing about electrical and computer engineering.

Have a great weekend everyone!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Jeremy Bos Awarded Young Investigator Research Program Grant

Bos_photo_20161012_rev1The Air Force Office of Scientific Research has announced that it will award approximately $20.8 million in grants to 58 scientists and engineers through the Air Force’s Young Investigator Research Program (YIP). This year AFOSR received over 230 proposals in response to the AFOSR broad agency announcement solicitation.

Jeremy Bos (ECE) will receive a three-year YIP grant for his research in Imaging Theory and Mitigation in Extreme Turbulence-Induced Anisoplanatism.

The YIP is open to scientists and engineers at research institutions across the United States who received Ph.D. or equivalent degrees in the last five years and who show exceptional ability and promise for conducting basic research.

The objective of this program is to foster creative basic research in science and engineering, enhance early career development of outstanding young investigators, and increase opportunities for the young investigators to recognize the Air Force mission and the related challenges in science and engineering.

The ECE Department congratulates Dr. Bos on his continued accomplishments.

AFOSR press release, 10/11/2016

ECE PhD Graduate Dr. Yang Liu joins Carnegie Mellon University as a Postdoc Researcher

ECE PhD Graduate Dr. Yang Liu Recent ECE Ph.D. graduate, Dr. Yang Liu, who studied under Prof. Shiyan Hu, Director of the Center for Cyber-Physical Systems, has joined Carnegie Mellon University as a Postdoctoral Researcher. Yang Liu joined the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Michigan Tech as a Ph.D. student after he received his B.S. degree from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China. Under the supervision of Prof. Shiyan Hu, his research focuses on smart home cyber-physical energy systems. The massive deployment of smart devices offers significant convenience on the remote and automatic control of the homes. Yet, it also makes the home vulnerable to cyberattacks. Yang has analyzed various cyberattacks to hack smart home systems for electricity pricing manipulation and energy theft. His work shows how these attacks could generate huge impacts to the power grid including the drastic increase of cost, interference of energy load and frequency, and even the large area blackout.

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Fall Career Fair 2016 – ECE Students In Demand

FWF_image_20160930This past Tuesday Michigan Tech held its fall Career Fair, always a big event in the life of the university. Some 340 companies and organizations filled up the Student Development Complex, our recreational and athletic facility up the hill from the main part of campus. From 12 noon to 5 pm students lined up to talk to companies about opportunities for full-time positions, co-ops, and internships. The rain we had all day did not dampen anyone’s spirits, although it did encourage more students to drive, making parking around the SDC a complete madhouse. On Wednesday recruiters filled every available conference and meeting room on campus for follow-up one-on-one interviews. I am always energized to see the level of interest shown by recruiters toward our engineering students – it gives me the confidence that we must be doing something right.

As usual, the demand for electrical engineering and computer engineering students was very high. As of this writing I do not have the hard numbers on how many companies were seeking ECE graduates – those numbers are harder to track down than they were last year – but from walking the floor and talking to recruiters the situation does not appear to have changed from recent years. Something that was new, and good to see, was that recruiters seemed happier with the number and the quality of the ECE students they had a chance to talk to. Last year we had so many companies at Career Fair – 370, an all-time Michigan Tech record – that unfortunately some of those companies went home empty-handed and disappointed. On the one hand, it is very gratifying to see large numbers of companies beating down our doors for graduates, but on the other hand it may be healthier to have a certain equilibrium, where we have just enough demand to make our students optimistic about their careers but not complacent. A little anxiety is a good thing, to help our students step up their game in resume preparation and interview skills. I heard a lot of good things this year about the interactions on the Career Fair floor and in the follow-up interviews. As you might imagine I am proud of our students and happy for them as they prepare to enter the next chapter in their lives.

Also this week, on Thursday and Friday, the ECE Department is hosting the fall meeting of our External Advisory Committee, a group of 15 or so industry representatives who help us in our efforts at continuous improvement in everything we do. That meeting is still going on, so I won’t give a full report here.

It’s been a pretty busy week so by the time it is all over I am looking forward to taking the weekend off and spending some time with good friends at a cabin out on Lake Superior. The predicted weather is good, and who knows, we may even see some northern lights. Have a good one everybody!


Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Fridays with Fuhrmann, a rite of passage

Breaking Home Ties, Normal Rockwell
Breaking Home Ties, Norman Rockwell

Greetings from the road! I am waking up this morning in the bustling metropolis of Miles City, Montana, conveniently located on I-94 about 700 east of Minneapolis, where I started yesterday morning, and 700 miles west of Spokane, where I will end up tonight. My wife and I are taking our youngest daughter off to college in Bellingham, Washington, on a long cross-country trip across the northern United States.

The personal story itself is not particularly noteworthy, but it does give me an opportunity to reflect on this important ritual in so many American lives, where Michigan Tech is front and center: leaving home and going to college. Every fall we and hundreds of other colleges see this writ large. In fact, this year in the ECE Department we are experiencing an 8% increase in undergraduate enrollment – the largest in the College of Engineering – as we welcome about 190 new first-year students to campus. It is good to have a chance to see this from the other side. It helps me to understand what an important responsibility we have in the life journey of these remarkable young adults we call our students.

Most of the more experienced faculty members in the ECE Department have been through this. We get what it means to give a gentle push and let go, as our children take their first steps as independent adults living away from home. This may explain, in part, why the older faculty tend to end up teaching the earlier courses in our curriculum. Pedagogy is very important to us at Michigan Tech, and it becomes more important as one goes earlier in the curriculum. The typical instructional career path in this and many departments starts with new faculty members teaching graduate courses, where the material is more important than the pedagogy, and as they gain experience teaching they work their way down the curriculum where the opposite is true. As a crusty old veteran I get a lot of satisfaction teaching a course in engineering mathematics for freshmen and sophomores.

Truth be told, we don’t have all that much contact with first-year students, my course being one exception. At Michigan Tech the first-year curriculum is the responsibility of a separate department called Engineering Fundamentals, and they do a fantastic job. All of the “traditional” departments in the College of Engineering are grateful and indebted to EF for their hard work and dedication.

Parents of course play a critical role in the hand-off. The relationship between the university and parents is somewhat curious. It would appear that our basic message to parents is: “Thank you for entrusting your children to our care and paying their tuition. Now go away.” Most of us, especially those of us with college-age children of our own, are actually perfectly happy to talk with parents and extol the virtues and benefits of a Michigan Tech education. At the same time, most of our parents understand the importance of backing away and letting their children take responsibility for their own lives. A lot of our parents are Michigan Tech alumni and can tell stories of the “good old days” when the disconnect was far more abrupt than it is today. Every so often I have to communicate with the so-called “helicopter parent”, but it is not an especially big issue and I don’t mind listening to their concerns. On rare occasions we have to invoke FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prevents parents from access to everything they might want to know about the college life of their children. I imagine this comes up more often for our academic advisors, and in the Office of the Dean of Students, than it does for me.

A lot of American students today, for one reason or another, choose to attend schools close to home or even live at home. This runs counter to my own experience so it is hard for me to relate. Back in 1975 I knew I wanted to be at least a day’s drive away and so ended up choosing a school 400 miles away from Mom and Dad. All of my own children have ended up at schools about 2000 miles from home or more (not sure what that says…I’ll take that as a positive reflection of their desire for independence…) At Michigan Tech, by virtue of our location, almost all of our students travel quite a distance to Houghton. The population centers in downstate Michigan, home to the majority of Huskies, are some 500-600 miles away. I believe this has a big influence on the nature of our student body and the sense of community built in our little outpost in the Upper Peninsula.

The sun is rising on a beautiful day here in Montana. I am looking forward to a couple more days with my wife and daughter before I have to do the same thing that all of our other Michigan Tech parents do: say goodbye. Time to hit the road!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Fridays with Fuhrmann, Remembering 9/11

patriot-day-september-11th-patriot-day-september-11th-2014-iKkWK2-clipartThis weekend we observe the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, the day the United States was attacked by an international terrorist organization, both towers of the World Trade Center came down, the Pentagon was badly damaged, a 4th plane went down in a field in Pennsylvania, and thousands of Americans lost their lives in horrible fashion. It was a very dark day in our history, and I am certain that all of us who were around at the time can remember where they were and what they were doing. For me, I was driving my older son to school and was listening to the car radio as events unfolded. I will never forget a short while later when my younger son announced with (perhaps unintentional) sardonic wit, “Well, now I’ve got something for Current Events!” Classes were canceled at Washington University, and everyone sat around watching the follow-up afternoon news on big-screen televisions. To this day I think of September 10, 2001, a day of minor personal importance, as the last normal day in America.

In the years that followed people found various ways to the remember what had happened, something that I am certain will happen this year too. One of my favorites came from Norman Katz, a faculty member in the Department of Systems Science and Engineering at Washington University, who in his classes in engineering mathematics would read aloud this little-known 4th verse from “America the Beautiful”:

O Beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

Things have never been the same since 9/11. Like it or not, we have given up liberties in the interest of increased security, the most obvious example for travelers being the hassles we have to go through in airports today. We are anxious about all manner of threats to our national security and to our personal security. Perhaps most insidious are threats to the well-being of people and organizations in the invisible world of cyberspace.

Our response to these 21st century threats must be both cautious and optimistic. We cannot be naive: we have to do what is prudent to protect ourselves and those that we love, along with our businesses, our schools, and our government. At the same time, we cannot live our lives in a climate of fear, otherwise the terrorists have won. I believe it is our duty as Americans to take all the right precautions – and our duty as engineers to help develop new technologies that enhance our security without being too intrusive – but in the end it is also our duty to live life with the openness and optimism that our way of life, defined and protected by the U.S. Constitution, affords us.

Life is an amazing adventure. 9/11 was a serious, tragic chapter in that story, but we cannot let it define who we are or what we stand for. I remain, as ever, grateful for the many joys and opportunities that have come my way. My sincere hope is that the majority of you feel the same way.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University